What’s in a name?

Island Life


Well, I did finish the minute movie talked about here last time, and if you like, it can be viewed here on the youtubes:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl9SGFmLG5M . Putting it together was a fascinating experience on a number of levels. First, there was the insight gained into the namesake of the climbing rose in my front yard- Sir Cedric Morris. As with anything named after a person, actually digging in and finding something about that person is always revelatory to some degree. Having to put all the info discovered in the research into a minute’s worth of viewing and narrative, in this case, was just not possible. You go with the essentials needed for the story and hope that that will suffice. Morris’s life on its own would fill a feature length biopic or documentary. It was interesting to find that his plantsman side provided many subjects for the paintings he did as an artist, as he specialized in growing, hybridizing and selecting various forms of poppies and bearded iris. But perhaps the most fascinating thing I found out from a garden writer friend I contacted after losing touch with him for fifteen or so years, was that this white-flowered giant of a rambling/climbing rose came from a seedling of a pink flowered species, shrub rose- Rosa glauca. It speaks to the mystery and the magic of growing things from seed- you are never totally sure what it is that you might end up with, which is of course why you do it.

Somewhere in all of my explorations into Cedric Morris, there was this other, bigger thing concurrently running along side- that of the nation- and world-wide actions around Black Lives and racism. From that it bubbled to the surface that the name of one of our conjoined Islands, the Maury part, had connections with the confederacy and perhaps that name should be changed to something with less racist implications. Of course I had to go to the google and the wiki, not to mention our other Island paper with its impassioned pleas for a change of name and an informative bit of historical background of the offending Mr. William Maury. Along with the pile of sand and gravel that is Maury Island, it is also the case that this Maury’s name is attached to an “ice-filled” bay in Antarctica, neither of which speak very highly of Mr. Maury, at least in either symbolic or metaphorical terms. While he did resign his U.S. Navy commission in order to serve in the confederacy out of his native state of Virginia during the Civil War, the naming of our appendage island (hmmm- maybe a good alternative name there?) took place twenty years before the North fought the South over the issue of slavery, and it would seem that, unlike the Jim Crow era appearance of confederate statuary across the country, this naming of the other part of Vashon was done to honor Maury’s service on this “mission of discovery”, and not to terrorize people of color with looming visages of stone and cast metal.

One has to stop and pause here to take a gander at other local names of places. Off to our southeast we have the mountain know now as Rainier. It was not named after the beer, but instead after Peter Rainier, a British naval officer. Mostly due north of there by a hundred or so miles we have Mount Baker, named for another officer in the Royal British navy, Joseph Baker. Tying the two inactive volcanoes together with a glistening band of salty sea-ness is Puget Sound, named for Peter Puget, yet another British Naval officer. And lest we not forget, it was Admiral  James Vashon for whom the bigger part of our sand and rock flotilla was named. Yes, yet another representative of the foreign military. As a side note it should be mentioned that it was Peter Rainier’s sister Sarah who became Vashon’s second wife in 1786. It should also be noted that Vashon served as a captain of a number of gunboats that sailed against the U.S. during the American War of Independence.

And so it is that one can go to the highest point on this Island and sweep one’s arm around and point to any number of prominent places and find them to be currently named after military officers from a foreign fighting force not our own. It could also be mentioned that in that same spatially  encompassing arm sweep, one would have found in all but 300 of the last twelve or so thousand years since the great ice rivers retreated from here, that prominent names from resident families on the Island would have come from the Marpoles and the Salish and the S’Homamish and the Tulalip, with neither a Vashon nor a Maury in sight. And so, as we settle into our seasons of discontent and frenetic introspective handwringing over how we might best save our souls from past indiscreet spatial designations, we should ask ourselves about the Indians that we stole the land from and not just acknowledge it is their land we are now on whenever we commence a significant gathering here, as has become the custom as of late. At the same time we should ask how far we wish to go in this renaming exercise, how broad the excision should be and where that will land us in historical understanding and not just historical, political correctness.

As an example, I am thinking here of our recent loss of John Lewis and what he has left for us in terms of human understanding and civil rights. There was talk last night on the teevee about how the renewal of the Voting Rights Act should now bear his name. There has also been talk of renaming the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama after John Lewis, an act that would stand out as a shining example of how the changing of a name would honor history rather than alter it. In many ways this change in name could serve as a metaphor for the current movement to recognize the need for permanent change in racial justice and civil rights. It was the Edmund Pettus bridge where civil rights marchers were stopped by Klansmen and state troopers and John Lewis, as one of the marchers, was nearly clubbed to death while trying to continue their march to Montgomery across that bridge. Pettus was a confederate general who championed slavery, and after he was pardoned for his service to the confederacy he went on to serve as the Grand Dragon of Alabama’s  chapter of the Klan. Everything that Pettus stood for served as an impediment to forward thinking and equal rights- John Lewis’ relentless pursuit of human rights and racial justice was the personification of a bridge to that place and time where all people are truly free.

I am also thinking of a time nearly two years ago when I was sitting in a pub just south of Chappaqua, New York where I grew up. That morning I had been to the statue honoring Horace Greeley, who had been a resident there in the mid 1800’s. I was on a trek to follow Greeley’s path from New York to San Francisco in 1859, and I had been photographing the statue with still and video cameras. As I was eating dinner I was also scanning the flatscreen teevees around the place that were playing sports events and an evening, local news broadcast. All of the sound was off, so I couldn’t here why, on the local news channel, they were showing the same view of Greeley’s statue that I had seen in my viewfinders that morning. At first I thought I had landed in a Twilight Zone remake or perhaps a Candid Camera where someone had stolen my SD cards and they were playing my footage to elicit a shocked reaction. I then began to figure out from text on the screen that it was a controversy playing out at Horace Greeley High School where a senior had found I quote from Greeley that disparaged the Black race, and the student was suggesting that school’s name be changed to something else.

This all didn’t make sense, because in my readings it had sounded like it was Greeley who had been so nagging and insistent to Lincoln about signing the Emancipation Proclamation that if he hadn’t persisted in that manner Lincoln might never have signed it. One of Greeley’s tasks on his cross country overland journey was to speak in Kansas in support of Free State ideals, so that when they went for statehood they would not become a slave-owning state. It was one of the paradoxes of those times where you could be both anti-slavery and still hold with the ideas that people of African descent were an inferior race. Looking back on history it seems that actions and ideals have to be weighed in the context of the times. It doesn’t make things right, it is something like adjusting for inflation, but it isn’t. It’s like imagining future historians looking back from 150 years on and wondering what the hell we were all about in these times. Perhaps as we give the required actions of these times in response to what we have been dealt for all these years, we may be found to have gotten something right. It will require a vision of context, wisdom and forethought- not always actions that can be found together in concert for the better good. We’ll see.